It’s the final weekend of the season, and EFL pundit Gab Sutton picks his best bets for all the action, with Play-Off spots still to be decided in all three leagues!
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Middlesbrough v Coventry City
Coventry to win
The automatic promotion race and the relegation dogfight might be a done deal in the Championship, but the Play-Off scramble is still to be resolved, allowing for plenty of final day drama.
As many as five teams are vying for the final two spaces, and two of them, Millwall and Blackburn – are playing one another – more of which anon.
The good news for the Lions, and Coventry, in their trip to Teesside, is that they have their destiny in their own hands, whereas Sunderland, West Brom and Blackburn – locked on 66 points, two off – must win and hope results elsewhere go their way.
And, while Millwall are facing a side still with something to fight for, Coventry have the benefit of facing opposition that already knows their fate.
Since Middlesbrough have known that neither the top two, nor missing out on the top six, is on the cards, Michael Carrick’s side have lost back-to-back games to Luton and Rotherham.
Boro will still be expected to carry a huge threat in the Play-Offs, but they have dropped off when they’ve not had much to play for, which is great news for the visitors.
The Sky Blues have accrued a whopping 34 points from their last 18 league games, and losing only two of them, as Gus Hamer has starred in midfield while Viktor Gyokeres has ran riot in attack.
Hamer has brought his usual vision for a Hollywood ball whilst adding some discipline to his game, without entirely losing that aggressive streak, while Gyokeres is a Premier League star in waiting.
The Swede’s pace, persistence, strength, agility, skill and ruthless finishing makes him very close to the complete package.
Monday’s game could be the last Coventry fans see of Hamer and Gyokeres, as both may depart for eight-figure fees this summer, but the likelihood is that another two or three matches are in store.
“Coventry have to be one of the stories of the EFL season: they were seven points adrift of safety in September due to postponements, fixtures and only playing away, so to be in pole position for a Play-Off spot is an extraordinary turnaround! I think Mark Robins’ side will get there.”Gab Sutton
Millwall v Blackburn Rovers
Blackburn to win
Blackburn have gone from being in pole position for a top six spot to going into the final day as low as ninth, due to a run of eight league games without a win.
Nonetheless, form of their competitors means Rovers could still secure a Play-Off berth if they win at Millwall, though they’d need other results go their way.
Jon Dahl Tomasson’s side have been playing better, in recent weeks, than results might suggest, and they’ve simply missed a clinical goalscoring presence, but Hayden Carter’s late equalizer against Luton gives them a chance.
It’s possible that the absence of an out-and-out centre-forward allows them to be more fluid in the final third, and explore rotations between Ryan Hedges, Sammie Szmodics, Ben Brereton-Diaz and Tyrhys Dolan.
Full-backs Joe Rankin-Costello and Harry Pickering are confident on either foot, which allows Tomasson to create patterns of play in which one of them is inverted, and the other holds the width, which then dictates the positions of Hedges and Brereton-Diaz.
Although, Hedges is more of a direct winger capable of taking on his full-back, whereas BBD likes to attack goalscoring positions late on in moves.
It’s possible that the rotations will flummox Millwall, who may also fall into the trap of thinking a draw might be enough to get them into the Play-Offs, whereas Blackburn have to win.
In some ways, it’s better psychologically to know you have to win, whereas knowing a draw might do it can be dangerous because it can sometimes affect behaviours on the pitch.
“Blackburn can still retrieve a Play-Off spot on the final day if they win, Sunderland fail to win at PNE and West Brom fail to win at Swansea. Knowing only a win will do might be psychologically preferable to Millwall’s position of knowing a draw might get them over the line.”Gab Sutton
Burton Albion v Milton Keynes Dons
MK Dons to win
Burton are having a big say in League One’s relegation dogfight, and not in the way they might have expected back in September.
The Brewers’ 1-0 win over Cambridge in midweek came as something of a surprise, because the East Staffordshire side have already secured safety, thanks to excellent form under Dino Maamria – they’d be ninth if the season started when he became number one.
The result took survival out of the hands of Mark Bonner’s side, who would have gone into the final day in pole position had they won on Wednesday, with the most favourable fixture possible at home to Forest Green.
Instead, the U’s have to win and rely on both MK Dons and Morecambe failing to do so, away to Burton and Exeter respectively.
Wednesday’s result served as a reminder that Albion intend to finish the season strongly, but it also served as a huge boost to their next opponents, MK Dons, who will stay up with a win (unless Morecambe’s victory comes by an extra nine goals!).
The result at the Pirelli was a let-off for Mark Jackson’s side, who squandered a three-goal second half lead against Barnsley last time out to draw 4-4.
MK do have the individual quality of Mo Eisa and Jonathan Leko to lean on though, after they scored a brace and a goal last week respectively: and Warren O’Hora’s return to defence could prove decisive.
“Burton showed they’re still fighting to finish as high as possible in their midweek win, but that result did wonders for MK Dons, who are now in pole position to stay up: win, and Mark Jackson’s side are safe – what an incentive that is…”Gab Sutton
Sheffield Wednesday v Derby County
Derby to win
Sheffield Wednesday have recovered from a blip between mid-March and early-April to win three successive league games, but the pace of the automatic promotion race is such that the damage was done.
The Owls are out of the equation for the top two, with Ipswich and Plymouth Argyle sealing the deal last week, so Darren Moore’s side must prepare for the Play-Offs – and the possibility of facing their forthcoming opponents three times in succession.
Derby were unable to book their own spot last week, drawing 1-1 with Portsmouth, but they’re still in pole position to pip Peterborough to the post, two points above the seventh-placed side with a goal difference superior by three.
The Rams can secure their place regardless of results elsewhere if they win at Sheffield Wednesday, while a draw would leave them needing Posh to fail to win by more than two goals at Barnsley.
It’s a decent position for Paul Warne’s side, even if three months ago they had their eyes on the top two.
Derby played well against Pompey, too, and the first 25 minutes was the best they’ve played for a number of seasons, so it’s plausible that Warne will once again forego an out-and-out centre-forward, with James Collins enduring a tough debut campaign.
David McGoldrick could be deployed as a false nine, with Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Louis Sibley in support, then Max Bird and Conor Hourihane bringing quality from midfield.
Bird can collect the ball off the defence and dictate: the Rams have taken 57 points from 33 games when he’s started, averaging 1.73 points per game, and 19 from 12 when he hasn’t, 1.58.
The positional stability Bird offers means Hourihane can roam, float and create: the Irishman loves to overload the left flank, which he’ll get the licence to if the steady Haydon Roberts starts at left wing-back, and deliver moments of quality in the final third.
Derby are far from the finished article, but their performance last week gives them a window to finish strongly at Hillsborough – and get the result they need to extend their season.
“Derby played well against Portsmouth last week, especially in the first half, and I see them taking that template with them to Hillsborough, where hosts Sheffield Wednesday are out of the automatic promotion mix. A Rams win would ensure these teams meet again on Friday!”Gab Sutton
Tranmere Rovers v Northampton Town
Northampton to win
Northampton had the chance to double the promotion parties in League Two last Saturday, but Jon Brady’s side were defeated by Bradford in injury-time.
Victory would have seen the Cobblers join Stevenage in League One, while a draw would have seen them need only a point at Prenton Park to complete the mission, but the loss means only a win can guarantee automatic promotion.
Fail to win and Teyn are in dangerous territory, because fourth-placed Stockport – though two points behind – have a superior goal difference and host already-relegated Hartlepool, and it’d be a huge surprise if Dave Challinor’s side don’t hold up their end up the bargain.
Realistically, then, Northampton have to win in Birkenhead, with a squad that’s been limited by injuries, as League Two’s second-top goalscorer, Sam Hoskins, started at right-back in a flat-back four.
Jon Brady may take the option to bring Harvey Lintott into the XI to restore balance, however, and hope his side can do the business in the first half, so they don’t have to rely on their bench to change a game.
A switch could free up Hoskins to show once again why he’s been one of the league’s top performers this season, while creative midfielder Marc Leonard, inventive forward Mitch Pinnock and on-loan Fulham star Kieron Bowie are all capable.
Tranmere, meanwhile, know they will be in League Two next season, and have little optimism over what 2023-24 will bring.
After Micky Mellon was sacked, Ian Dawes was appointed caretaker manager, has overseen two wins in eight without a notable improvement in performances, yet been given the permanent job: hardly a choice to inspire the Super White Army.
“Northampton missed out on automatic promotion on goal differennce on the final day of last season at Barrow, due to the quirk of Bristol Rovers winning 7-0, and Jon Brady will be desperate to banish that ghost in the finale of this one, at Prenton Park. With one or two tweaks to last week’s side, I think the Cobblers will do it.”Gab Sutton
Bradford City v Leyton Orient
Bradford to win
It’s been a mixed week for Bradford, as an injury-time winner at Northampton prompted late automatic promotion hope, but that was quashed by a midweek 3-2 loss at Crewe.
As such, City are now out of the top three reckoning, but Romoney Crichlow’s dramatic strike at Sixfields makes the task of securing a Play-Off spot simpler for Mark Hughes’ side on the final day.
The Bantams can book their Semi-Final by avoiding defeat against champions Leyton Orient, by avoiding a swing of three or more goals between themselves and Mansfield, or by Salford losing by two more goals than they do.
It’s difficult for teams already crowned champions to finish strongly: four of the last five games played by League Two title-winners, post-party, have ended in defeat.
The timing of this fixture falls nicely, then, for Bradford, certainly more so than it did for the 3-0 trouncing at Brisbane Road in November’s reverse fixture.
Hughes’ side haven’t always been convincing this season, but they do have match-winners at both ends in goalkeeper Harry Lewis and front-man Andy Cook, while attacking midfielder Scott Banks has come into form in the latter stages of the season.
“Bradford have match-winners at either end and I think that’ll see them to the victory they need to secure a top seven berth against title-winners Leyton Orient – it’s difficult for teams already crowned champions to maintain their motivation.”Gab Sutton